Five of the sexiest scenes in literature
Stuart Jeffries picks notable passages from classic novels
Saturday 23 July 2016 06.15 BST
t’s difficult to write a good sex scene. There’s the risk of wittering about vaginal frilliness as Updike did in his Memories of the Ford Administration or producing something like one of those complicated fist fights in Dashiell Hammett where you can’t quite work out which limb is putting whose windpipe in a chokehold. Here are five that do better.
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer
“‘You’re the thinnest person I’ve ever slept with,’ she said. ‘It’s like making love to an ironing board.’” This postcoital remark may seem an odd thing to select to stand up my thesis (Ladies! Excuse me!), but Laura’s happy teasing of Jeff and his gallant response (he suggests there is probably a poor ex-Soviet republic where that is the greatest compliment a woman can pay a man and that’s where he plans to permanently live) typifies the winningly joyful vibe of Dyer’s description of a bit of slap and tickle at the Venice Biennale. “She sat back twisting his nipples rubbing herself in his face. His face gleamed with her smell.” Can something gleam with smell? Sure, why not?
Dyer contrives a scene as unexpectedly erotic, if less glumly premised, as that in which Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie make love following their child’s death in Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Maybe it’s something about Venice.
But then Dyer, wonderfully, clinches the spiritual significance of sex. “The word that insistently came to mind, afterwards, as they lay in each other’s arms was unusable, in a way that ‘cock’, ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck’ were: communion.” How lovely that, even if in our postmodern world in which clever people such as Jeff and Laura have talked words into meaninglessness, they can still get it on in a way that’s not about domination and possession.
|À la Recherche du Temps Perdu|
À la Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust
Picture the scene. Albertine is asleep in bed and the narrator, Marcel, is masturbating against her side. “It seemed to me at those moments,” writes Marcel, “that I possessed her more completely, like an unconscious part of dumb nature.” Albertine becomes a mere plaything of the rich, sick aesthete – vegetable rather than lover. This scene, like so much of the bleak encounters in Proust’s great novel, is powerful for dramatising an inhumane vision of life and sex, one that denies the dream of communion in favour of sex as possession or destruction of the other.
Spring in Fialta by Vladimir Nabokov
Here’s my theory: just as the most effective horror movies leave the horror unvisualised (The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity etc), the best sex scenes are ones that leave the sex undescribed, so you can do the imaginative work.
One morning, Nabokov’s narrator meets again the diverting woman in the grey suit in a Parisian hotel corridor. Every word is – if you’re in the mood for a bit of the other – sexual. She’s “waiting for the elevator to take her down, a key dangling from her fingers.” Her husband, she confides, has gone fencing. She leads him back to her room where “because of our sudden draft a wave of muslin embroidered with white dahlias got sucked in, with a shudder and a knock, between the responsive halves of the French window, and only when the door had been locked did they let go of that curtain with something like a blissful sigh; and a little later I stepped out on the diminutive cast-iron balcony beyond to inhale a combined smell of dry maple leaves and gasoline …”
The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
Just beyond the compost heap in some communal gardens in London, virgin Nick is getting kissed by Leo, a stranger he met in the personal ads (it’s the 80s, there is no Grindr). “He thought he saw the point of kissing, but also its limitations – it was an instinct, a means of expression, of mouthing a passion but not satisfying it. So his right hand, that was lightly clutching Leo’s waist, set off, still doubting its freedom, to dawdle over the plump buttocks and then squeeze them through the soft old denim.” I don’t think there’s a better scene in literature for dramatising the randy hero philosophically musing while in the throes of passion and then doing something practical to enhance his and his lover’s pleasures.
Nick and Leo’s sex, appealingly, isn’t just liberating, but funny: “[T]here was something hilarious in the shivers of pleasure that ran up his back and squeezed his neck, and ran down his arms to his fingers – he felt he’d been switched on for the first time, gently gripping Leo’s hips, and then reaching round him to help unbutton his shirt and get it off and hold his naked body against him. It was all so easy. He had worried the night before that there might be some awful knack to it …” In a world in which good sex is so often reduced to ungraspable technique (cf the 1965 film The Knack …and How to Get It), how pleasing to read a passage that depicts it otherwise.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
“I had touched her before, to wash and dress her, but never like this,” narrates Sue, a lady’s maid. “So smooth she was! So warm! It was like I was calling the heat and shape of her out of the darkness – as if the darkness was turning solid and growing quick, under my hand.” What gives this passage such erotic power is how both Sue and Maud, her mistress, are blindsided by desire. At the start of the book, Sue has been lured to work as a lady’s maid by a swindler called Gentleman who aims to marry and ruin the heiress Maud, before dumping her in an asylum and making her fortune his own. Like you do. Sue will get a cut of the fortune if the plot is successful. In the above scene, Sue is ostensibly coaching naive Maud in what she must do on her wedding night after, as planned, marrying Gentleman. Instead, Sue forgets her role in the plot as she explores Maud’s body. She brings Maud to orgasm and then, against her scheming, falls sweetly for the woman she planned to help destroy:
“She began to shake. I supposed she was still afraid. Then I began to shake, too. I forgot to think of Gentleman, after that. I thought only of her. When her face grew wet with tears, I kissed them away.
“You pearl,” I said. So white she was! “You pearl, you pearl, you pearl.”
Well, it worked for me.